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SINK OR SWIM

Pressure pushes Park to perform at big meets

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SINK OR SWIM

Justin Park was the only local boys swimmer to win a race at the Sac-Joaquin Section Championships, capturing the frosh/soph 100-yard butterfly title.

CHRIS LEONARD/LeonardPhoto.com/


POSTED July 17, 2013 2:06 a.m.

The moments before a race are the most precious for Justin Park.

Left alone with his thoughts and race strategy, Park can feel the spectators narrow their focus on the pool. He can feel his heart about to leap from his chest.

And then, remarkably, he breaths it all in – the butterflies and anxiety, the pressure and expectation.

“I enjoy the adrenaline of big races,” the 15-year-old soon-to-be sophomore said. “It was scary at first, but once you get used to it it’s thrilling that people have come to watch you swim.”

The attention is warranted.

Park established himself as one of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s must-watch freshman swimmers this spring with a gold-medal performance at the section championships.

The Bulletin’s All-Area Boys Swimmer of the Year won the frosh/soph 100-yard butterfly and finished second in another event, and was the only local boys swimmer to celebrate a top-of-the-podium finish at Lodi’s Tokay High.

“I’ve had plenty of rivals and good swimmers to aim for,” said Park, whose versatility was an asset for Ripon coach Erik Zador. “Working with my coach and focusing on sections was really fun.”

Park’s postseason separated him from a deep pool of MVP candidates. He was also a double winner for Ripon High at the Valley Oak League Championships, winning the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly.

However, it was his break-through performance at sections that delivered Park the Bulletin’s swimmer of the year award.

Park won the 100 fly with a 52.56-second finish. He was also second overall in the 100 backstroke (55.23).

“It was shocking at first. I wasn’t expecting to win,” Park said. “Once it settled in, I was happy and wanted to share that joy with my friends.”

Friends will become foes next spring.

Park will swim at St. Mary’s in Stockton, citing academics and a proximity to his club team as the reasons for his transfer.

Park swims for the Stockton Pacific Tigers and says he’s training for the Far Western long-course championship at the end of summer.

A catalyst in Ripon’s fast rise as a Valley Oak League and southern section contender, Park savors the memories and friendships he made in building the small school’s swimming profile.

Park swam multiple events for Ripon High, which finished second in the VOL’s  team standings, including the 100 backstroke, 100 butterfly, 100 freestyle, individual medley and relays.

“When I used to be there, we had been there for 10 years so we have a lot time bonding and improving our strokes,” said Park, who began his year-round commitments with Ripon Aquatics. “It was fun. Now that I get to compete against them it seems more fun.”

One thing is certain: Park won’t shy away from the big races or meets.

Park has been swimming since the age of 5. Over time, he’s developed a pre-race mantra remarkably mature for a teenager not yet old enough to drive or vote.

While many might cower beneath the nerves of the moment, Park uses them as fuel.

“I think about it like this: If I can’t give it my all now, I’ll spend all my effort regretting it afterward,” he said. “I might as well give it all my all now. If I fail, I’ll have given it everything I have anyway.”

That mindset will serve Park well as he transfers to St. Mary’s, a large-school program with one of the southern section’s top athletic programs.

Pressure?

He welcomes it.

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